The Greek-Australian documentary photographer Effy Alexakis, is a living cultural legend. Her latest exhibition, Survey - a follow-up to Forty Photographs – A Year at a Time - chronicles four decades of her images of the Greek-Australian identity. The retrospective exhibition is at The Shop Gallery in Sydney’s Glebe until 14 December.
Effy, together with her husband, the social historian, Leonard Janiszewski, have been researching the Greek-Australian historical and contemporary presence in both Australia and Greece since 1982. Their project and archives, In Their Own Image: Greek-Australians, encompasses visual, oral and literary material and memorabilia and is widely regarded as one of the most significant diasporic collections in the country.
The retrospective exhibition features 40 sublime photographs representative of her past work as well as two new projects on the Greek-Australian experience as part of Effy's continuing photographic odyssey. It also helps explain why Alexakis has been ranked in the top ten portrait photographers in Australia.
In the forward to In Their Own Image the actor and writer Lex Marinos, who also features in the exhibition wearing traditional Greek folkloric costume, wrote that the couple are merely following in the footsteps of ancient and modern Greek writers and artists over the ages. Marinos correctly observed that from the times of Homer and Sappho and Sophocles to Cavafy and Kazantzakis and Komninos, Greeks have been obsessed with the quest for identity because at the heart of Greek mythology is the restless question: “Who am I?”
Through Effy’s lens, we gain a greater understanding of our ability to maintain and develop our culture and, importantly, the right to control our image.
Back in 1990 Effy and Leonard 1990 had travelled to Greece and spent some time on the islands of Ithaca, Kythera and Kastellorizo to undertake a systematic documentation of the abandoned homes on those islands which yielded so many migrants to Australia in the first half of the 20th century. The aim of their project, which continues to be distilled through momentous and poignant photography over the past four decades, in the words of Janiszewski, is to provide a “rounder, more complex and detailed, social, cultural and historical image” of Greek-Australians than has previously been attempted.
The project through Effy’s lens and Leonard’s historical research has embraced many themes, including life in the country of origin, the reasons for migration and settlement and the initial settlement experience itself, language problems, education, cultural identity, racism, and considerations of re-migration.
As an influential documentary photographer Effy Alexakis has captured the spirit of the Greek community, both in Australia and abroad and in so doing has helped create a rich archive of Greek-Australian cultural resources. Through her lens we gain a historical perspective on the Greek-Australian experience and particularly the identity and self-expression of Greek migrants through tender and sensitive portraitures.
One of her favourite portraits is that of a young and pensive Christos Tsiolkas. The emerging writer's cross-cultural identity and conflict are captured in his own words:
“Dad came from a right wing background. Mum was left-wing. That was always at play within my family. It means that Greece has always been contradictory. I’ve never heard just one side to a history of Greece. I’ve grown up in a home where it’s actually quite a volatile discussion that what being Greek means – what an idea of ‘home’ is.”
Another outstanding work is her portrait of the artist, writer and academic John Conomos taken in 2014. When discussing his lived experienced and Kytherian background Conomos admitted:
“Melancholia is a huge theme that runs right through the Kytherian imagination, my ancestral Greek island, hence Watteau’s Embarkation to Cythera, hence Debussy’s The Isle of Joy, hence Baudelaire’s poem Autumn Song, hence Angelopoulos’ Voyage to Kythera and the melancholic part is also part of my clan that my father came from. Our ancestors were Venetian pirates, short stocky pirates of the melancholic background … So, the catastrophic, the melancholic, are complicated and interwoven as an amalgam (and) it’s marked my life.”
Alexakis’ work, complemented by the compelling narratives of Janiszewski, is defined by sharp, well-lighted, classically composed pictures. Back in 2018, in the introduction to the “In Her Own Image” exhibition in Melbourne, the well-known photographic critic Robert McFarlane praised Effy Alexakis’ images of Greek-Australians, noting that there is a “consistent humanity” coupled with an outstanding craft in her photography:
“Her photographs are never of the subject merely placed against an appropriate background. Quality of light appears crucially important to this photographer, as is the body language of her subjects.”
McFarlane also noticed the similarities with the famous Greek-American photographer Constantine Manos in his book A Greek Portfolio, where both photographers are able to embrace the Greekness of themselves and their subjects.
A compelling image from Greece is actually two photographs taken at the home of Effy's paternal grandmother in Sikea in the Peloponnese in 1990. In a poignant reminder of the tyranny of distance, her (now) late grandmother spent a large part of her life quietly waiting for news and photographs from her family in Australia and as she could not read she relied on Effy’s grandfather to read the letters. The photographs from the other side of the world would be placed upon the walls of the house in a patchwork form of images which was a comforting constant reminder of her family.
As Alexakis writes:
“The wall of faces and places far removed from village life was symbolic of the migration process – representing lives and memories my grandmother could never really share, only witness."
The second image is hauntingly beautiful, as though the soul has left the house after the death of the grandmother and recalling what Robert Frank, the highly influential Swiss-American documentary photographer, once wrote:
“There is one thing the photo must contain – the humanity of the moment.”
Effy's new projects have also been unveiled.
The proposed Binding Threads series is a collaboration with Dr Helen Vatsikopoulos, journalist, academic and documentary filmmaker, on how the enduring threads of traditional Greek folkloric costumes bind the past to the present, creating diasporas of belonging.
Effy Alexakis has been photographing well-known and lesser well-known Greek-Australians from all walks of life, including Vietnamese-Greek and First Nations Australians with Greek ancestry.
The ABC personality Costas Georgiadis, wearing traditional Lemnian folkloric clothing, engages with the well-known conductor George Ellis in a multicultural symphony of colour and costume.
The exquisite threads and colours of authentic Greek costumes from the Hellenic Lyceum in Sydney are also brilliantly captured by the camera.
In the same exhibition, Effy Alexakis also exhibited photos from Father Nektarios’ Kitchen, a new photographic series on the work of charity workers, volunteers and Father Nektarios Zorbalas in a soup kitchen for the needy running out of the Parish of Saints Constantine and Helen.
According to Effy Alexakis:
“As a documentary photographer my intent is to engage the everyday – to seek, explore, reflect, consider, unravel, highlight and embrace what is seen and initially hidden. Father Nektarios’ Kitchen series is a personal insight and a homage to the unselfish kindness expressed by a Greek Orthodox priest and his volunteers in Sydney’s inner-western suburb of Newtown. All who are in need of care and a meal are looked after day after day, with dignity and sensitivity. Nektarios’ initiative is primarily funded through his personal finances.”
These projects continue to build on Effy Alexakis' and Leonard Janiszewski's historical, sociological and cultural investigation of the Greek Australian experience and the engagement of the Greek community both here and back in the motherland.
The new book will be available in early 2023.
The retrospective exhibition merely reaffirms what the eminent local Greek-Australian historian John Yiannakis OAM has written:
“Effy is the embodiment of humility. Her unassuming presence exudes a natural inclination to meld into the background and merely observe before being ‘discovered’ as the ‘tour de force’ that she is! Perhaps it is this very quality that makes her photography so special; her quiet discerning ability to notice the inner strengths and struggles of her fellow Greeks.”
Effy Alexakis is indeed a sublime cultural documentary photographer. Her photos inspire empathy and respect. They capture real moments, real people. They rightly take their place as a seminal part of Greek-Australian history and culture.
George Vardas is the Arts and Culture Editor